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Lineman grounded – except on weekends

He travels back and forth to Stanford to get his degree

Thomas Keiser has endured six cross-country flights the past six weeks, racked up 40,000 frequent flier miles and gotten on a first-name basis with the flight attendants on US Airways’ nonstop from San Francisco to Charlotte.

But when Keiser comes out of the clouds and his perpetual jet-lag next month, the Panthers’ second-year defensive end will have a degree from Stanford – and, he hopes, a place in the team’s defensive line rotation.

Keiser, who joined the Panthers last season as an undrafted free agent after leaving Stanford a year early, returned to school in January to finish the coursework for his interdisciplinary major of science, technology and society.

Still nine hours short of his degree when the spring quarter began in April, Keiser decided to commute from Charlotte to Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto, Calif., once a week rather than miss the Panthers’ optional offseason workouts.

“I’m making the investment right now, putting in the work, so I have a better chance of making the team come fall camp,” Keiser said. “It’s important for me to learn the system, be able to work out here and get coached up. I thought it was a major priority.”

So was finishing his degree.

If Keiser maintains his A in American economic history, he will graduate with a 3.1 grade point average. Because he also needed two electives to wrap up his degree requirements, Keiser also is taking yoga and wilderness first aid.

But Keiser hardly loaded up on “jock classes” at Stanford. He has a minor in Arabic, which he used during a spring break trip to the Middle East, and his final economics paper is a 15-pager on the Federal Reserve.

Keiser can serve as his own case study in micro-economics. He earns $500 a week for attending the voluntary workouts, which is not enough to cover his round-trip airfare.

He considers it an investment in his future.

“I knew the farther away I got and the more success I had with football, there was going to be less of an incentive – at least in the immediate time period – for me to come back,” Keiser said this week outside of a coffee shop near his uptown apartment.

Keiser left Stanford after his junior season against the wishes of then-Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh, who also was on his way out to become coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Keiser, who led Stanford with nine sacks in 2009, suffered when Harbaugh switched to a 3-4 scheme before the 2010 season.

Keiser moved from defensive end to a hybrid outside linebacker spot. It was a bad fit for a player used to rushing the quarterback rather than dropping into coverage on pass plays.

“When you watched him on tape, the (coverage) instinct wasn’t there because he just hadn’t done it enough times at that position,” said Ron Lynn, Stanford’s former co-defensive coordinator. “But all the other things, in terms of the toughness and collisions, he was all over that.”

Though he was not invited to the combine, Keiser still expected to be picked no lower than the fifth round. Instead, he signed with the Panthers after getting passed over and spent the first eight weeks last season on the practice squad.

He made an early impact once he was activated, collecting two sacks at Detroit in his second game. Keiser finished the season with four sacks, tying Greg Hardy for second on the team despite playing in half as many games.

Lynn, a longtime NFL and college coach who recruited Panthers coach Ron Rivera to Cal, talked to Keiser recently about readjusting his goals. Instead of striving to make the team, Lynn told him to try to make the team better.

“I thought that was a really good point. I thought I brought some positive things to the team last year when I played,” Keiser said. “I do think I can be an asset regardless of depth or anything like that. I want to be a guy they depend on, and I think I can do that.”

Keiser showed his dependability with his long-distance juggling act this offseason. Despite his hectic travel schedule, Keiser missed only three workouts – each of which he made up.

“That’s him,” Lynn said. “He’s a guy that’s true to his word. He’s a guy who fulfills his commitment and believes in doing things the right way, and I think you can see that in the way he plays. He plays hard every play.”

Immediately after practice Thursday, Keiser will head to the airport to fly to San Jose, with a connection in Phoenix. He’ll attend a small group discussion Thursday night and write a paper Friday.

While on campus, Keiser stays in the same apartment-style dorm as Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick in last month’s draft. Athletes are not star-struck at Stanford: Keiser has LPGA star Michelle Wie among his cellphone contacts.

Keiser will return to Charlotte on Sunday, and be back at Bank of America Stadium early Monday morning. Keiser, 23, plans to take his econ final in the Panthers’ coaches’ offices next month during a break between the team’s morning walkthrough and afternoon minicamp practice.

He will not have to ask Rivera to proctor the test: Stanford is on the honor system.

Keiser, who is from suburban Pittsburgh, actually took part in Stanford’s commencement exercises last year – “Basically, so my mom could take pictures,” he said.

He has one more long flight scheduled after he graduates. He’s going to Alaska with his dad and brother for a fishing trip.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Keiser said he does know how to relax.

“Fishing is my one decompression thing, for sure. That’s the one thing I look forward to doing when I get back to Pittsburgh in the summer is going down to the (Ohio) River and fishing,” he said. “I go down with my friends, build a fire, sit out late at night and catch catfish or whatever’s biting.”

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